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Ukrainian president announces sick leave

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, pictured during a press conference in Kiev, in December last year.
Viktor Yanukovych off due to ‘severe cold’ and ‘high temperature,’ with country in turmoil

KIEV — Embattled Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych announced suddently he was going on sick leave yesterday, after a bruising session of Parliament the day before. He leaves a gaping political vacuum in his country, which is threatened with bankruptcy and destabilised by anti-government protests.

The 63-year-old president appears increasingly isolated in a crisis born of a tug-of-war between the West and Ukraine’s former Soviet overlord Russia. A former president said this week the violence between demonstrators and police had brought the country to the brink of civil war.

Shortly after his office announced he had developed a “high temperature” and “acute respiratory ailment,” Yanukovych defended his record in handling the crisis and accused the opposition, which is demanding his resignation, of provoking the unrest in a fiery statement released by his office.

“We have fulfilled all the obligations which the authorities took on themselves,” it read, referring to a bill passed late on Wednesday granting a conditional amnesty for activists who had been detained.

“However, the opposition continues to whip up the situation, calling on people to stand in the cold for the sake of the political ambitions of a few leaders.”

The amnesty offered freedom from prosecution to peaceful protesters, but only on condition that activists left official buildings they have occupied — something they have rejected outright.

Several members of Yanukovych’s own party a;sp voted against the bill, even after he visited Parliament himself to rally support, and some of his industrialist backers are showing signs of impatience with the two-month-old crisis.

Prime Minister Mykola Azarov dramatically resigned on Tuesday after a sharp escalation of the street unrest, which began in November when Yanukovych rejected a European Union deal in favour of closer ties and a bailout deal with Russia.

The president, under pressure from Moscow not to tilt policy back towards the West, has yet to appoint a successor. Serhiy Arbuzov, Azarov’s first deputy and a close family friend of Yanukovych, has stepped in as interim prime minister.

“The president of Ukraine has been officially registered as sick, with an acute respiratory ailment and a high temperature,” a statement on the presidential website said. The illness was also reported as “a severe cold” in other translations of the statement.

Breathing space?

The bare announcement on his health gave no sign of when he might be back at his desk or able to appoint a new government, which Moscow says must be in place before it goes ahead with a planned purchase of US$2 billion of Ukrainian government bonds.

“Today is the first day of the illness. He has a high temperature. We are not doctors, but it is clear that a high temperature does not go down in a single day,” a presidential spokesman said by telephone. “The doctors will do all they can so that he can recover quickly.”

Some opposition figures said they suspected Yanukovych might be giving himself a breathing space after being forced into concessions to try to calm the unrest on the streets.

“This smacks of a ‘diplomatic illness,’” Rostislav Pavlenko, a member of boxer-turned-politician Vitaly Klitschko’s Udar (Punch) party, said. “It allows Yanukovych not to sign laws, not to meet the opposition, (to) absent himself from decisions to solve the political crisis.”

A close ally of Yanukovych, who was last seen in Parliament on Wednesday night, rejected that interpretation. The president had hurried to the legislature to herd supporters into voting for the amnesty bill. Mykhailo Chechetov, from Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, said the president had told supporters there he had come to the session directly from hospital. “He looked ill,” Chechetov said.

But photographs released by the presidential press service of Yanukovych holding talks with a European Union delegation earlier in the day showed no obvious signs of illness.

Herald with Reuters

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